As driving sleet beat down on John F. Kennedy International Airport during a miserable late-winter storm last week, a cluster of pilots waited late into the night to see if ground crews could make their ice-covered jets safe enough to fly.
For many, it was a losing battle. In five hours, one terminal exhausted its entire 30,000-gallon supply of the chemical sprayed on airplane wings to protect them from ice and snow.
“That’s more than we normally use in half a winter,” said Edward J. Paquette, a manager at the company that operates the terminal.
Hundreds of passengers remained aboard the grounded jets for six, nine, and even 14 hours as the deicing operations ground to a halt. Furious travelers castigated the airlines for not letting them off planes.
Unbeknownst to travelers, the fiasco may have been complicated by disagreement over whether the airlines should fly at all in such weather.
The Federal Aviation Administration and the airlines have been at odds for two years about the protocols for taking off in storms that produce light ice pellets, a term for the stinging sleet that occurs when snow melts, then refreezes, as it falls from the sky.
The dispute began in October 2005 when the FAA temporarily barred flights in these ice storms after a Canadian study indicated that anti-icing fluids might not work in such conditions.
Air carriers protested and the FAA in August began allowing flights again, but only if pilots can takeoff within 25 minutes of a deicing procedure.
Planes that don’t beat that deadline have to be deiced again, creating headaches for airlines because departing flights routinely exceed the 25-minute threshold at major airports. That means some planes that are deiced have to leave the takeoff queue and go back to be deiced again.
Airlines argue that the FAA overreacted to an inconclusive study and is needlessly grounding planes that could fly safely.
The Air Transport Association, a group representing most U.S. cargo and passenger airlines, calls the new rules “unnecessary and overly restrictive.”
“The FAA’s deicing policy has had an enormous impact on flight operations during recent winter weather, contributing to extensive delays and cancellations,” the group said this week in a written response to an Associated Press inquiry. “The FAA has provided us with no corroborating data to support these changes.”
JetBlue Chief Executive David Neeleman also complained about the regulation after a Valentine’s Day ice storm severely disrupted the airline’s operations at JFK.
During that Feb. 14 storm, JetBlue held some planes on the tarmac for as long as 10½ hours while waiting for a break in the weather that never came.
Neeleman said that more planes might have been able to get in the air if FAA rules didn’t deter takeoffs when the forecast calls for ice pellets.
With proper deicing, “it’s not a dangerous condition,” Neeleman said.
FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette acknowledged that the decision to limit operations in light ice pellets was prompted by an abundance of caution, and the agency’s policy is still being developed.
Additional research is under way in partnership with Transport Canada, the FAA’s equivalent north of the border.
It is possible, Duquette said, that regulators will modify their policies again if studies yield better information about how long anti-icing fluids guard against this particular type of ice build up.
“We know that the industry has concerns,” she said.
That would include airline claims that the 25-minute window can amount to a total ban on flights at some congested airports.
At overcrowded JFK, the average taxi-out time for planes taking off last year was 33 minutes, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics. The average flight taxied for 30 minutes at Newark Liberty International, 27 minutes at LaGuardia and 20 minutes each at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International and O’Hare International in Chicago.
The United Parcel Service said its own research indicated that anti-icing fluids protect planes from ice pellet buildup for much longer than the 25 minutes suggested by the FAA.
“Obviously, everyone wants to be conservative,” said UPS spokesman Mark Giuffre. “But,” he added, “there are some forms of ice pellets and precipitation where we think there are operative conditions ... We still feel like there’s more opportunity (to fly).”